MFVGA offers educational opportunities for growers large and small

The old adage that there’s strength in numbers is one reason that people join industry associations. The opportunity to learn with and from peers is an invaluable one. The Minnesota Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association is dedicated to providing such opportunities, through both formal educational programs and informal conversations at group meetings and events.

The Minnesota Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association (MFVGA) includes a mix of both fruit and vegetable famers. “We’ve got apple orchards, strawberry and raspberry producers, and we have many diverse vegetable growers, too. The membership is a pretty diverse group,” explains Marilyn Johnson, MFVGA’s executive coordinator. “We have large growers, we have small growers and we have everything in between.” In many cases, the members of the association are the owners of family farming operations, she adds.

Most of the membership is involved in some type of direct marketing, says Johnson. “They’re selling through farmers’ markets, roadside stands; many of them also sell to institutions or wholesale through brokers.” The association helps growers selling to all markets by helping to promote and increase awareness of the fruits and vegetables being grown in Minnesota.

While that general market awareness is valuable, it’s the educational opportunities offered by MFVGA that attract the most attention. “We have an annual education conference in the winter – usually the week that it’s the coldest!” says Johnson. That event, the Upper Midwest Regional Fruit and Vegetable Growers Conference and Trade Show, attracts many growers from that region in search of an opportunity to learn from a wide array of experts (including researchers, educators, extension professionals, experienced growers, etc.) in both agriculture as well as the business and marketing aspects of farming. They offer the latest findings, tips and trends. “It lasts two days and there are concurrent sessions running, so a wide variety of topics are covered,” she points out. “Some of it is on production; some of it is on business management; some of it is marketing; some of it is on diseases and pests.”

For members, the educational agenda is only part of the benefit of joining the association and attending the annual conference. “It provides an opportunity for both formal and informal sharing,” observes Johnson, as attendees also have plenty of opportunity to chat with each other about the types of plants, equipment and growing strategies that they use in their operations. This brings out both the successful and not-so-successful approaches. “Growers come together and talk with each other, and get ideas, and find out what’s working for somebody else,” she explains. Even learning about what’s not working is valuable, because it may help other growers avoid making the same mistake made by one of their peers.

Also, throughout the year, the Minnesota Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association offers workshops designed specifically to assist “new growers” by providing an introduction to various aspects of growing. “Last year, we did one on high tunnel production for people who are getting into high tunnels, and another workshop on apple orchards,” explains Johnson. The sessions last an entire day, which provides an opportunity to get very in-depth in the instruction. At the high tunnel workshop, for example, the day covered everything from the general concept of high tunnels (why and how you would want to get started in high tunnel production) to specific information relating to developing markets, utilizing labor, looking for different crops that would work, controlling diseases, using drip irrigation, pricing products, amending soils for production in high tunnels and general concerns when using them.

In the Minnesota climate, high tunnels have been garnering a lot of attention in recent years and this session proved very popular, says Johnson. “People aren’t necessarily switching their operations over to high tunnels, but they’re adding them to the [fruits and vegetables] they’re growing in the field,” she explains. “Adding the tunnels helps them get season extension. In some cases, that cover makes a big difference.”

Johnson notes that some of those attending new grower workshops are indeed completely new to agriculture and are in need of guidance in getting in the business, while others are experienced growers looking to brush up on the basics and pick up new techniques and methods. Still others are growers with existing operations they want to expand or diversify by introducing new fruit or vegetable crops, or by changing agricultural practices. “We try to rotate the topics, so recently we’ve had beginner’s workshops on berry production and vegetable production,” she states.

Even niche agricultural markets get attention in the form of educational seminars and workshops. Currently, MFVGA is conducting a “How to Peddle Your Pickles Safely.” “That is for producers who want to sell canned pickles, as well as some fruit sauces, which come under Minnesota’s pickle bill legislation,” explains Johnson. “We also have workshops right now on establishing good agricultural practices [GAP], and helping growers create their own food safety plans, and preparing them to be GAP-certified.”

While the winter educational meetings draw the biggest numbers during a time of year when Minnesota’s winter weather limits most growing activities, the MFVGA also conducts summer field days. These gatherings take place at a member’s farm, providing a great opportunity for firsthand sharing. “Those are pretty open, depending on what the host wants to do,” explains Johnson. “They show people around the operation and answer questions. And, again, it’s an opportunity for growers to talk with each other. That’s sometimes where you learn the most.”

Representing the state’s fruit and vegetable growers’ interests in relationships with the USDA and other federal and state governmental agencies is another valuable service provided by the Minnesota Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association. And the association also supports the efforts of the University of Minnesota Extension Service in its work to help growers in the state. For example, the two entities not long ago partnered in the creation of an online vegetable diagnostic tool, as well as updates and distribution of IPM manuals for specific segments of the growing industry.

Finally, the MFVGA offers its members group buying opportunities. This undertaking, as well as the association’s other initiatives, is designed to benefit both large and small member growers. For example, MFVGA does a group buy of raspberry and strawberry plants, with members ordering. “We try to do things that will work for as many growers as possible,” explains Johnson. “When we do the berry order, some members will order as many as 20,000 or 30,000 plants – we had one this year who ordered 40,000 plants – and we have some that will only order 500 or 1,000 plants.”

Similarly, the MFVGA also sponsors a group purchase of “Minnesota Grown” produce bags, says Johnson. For smaller growers, it’s an opportunity to purchase the customized bags at a lower quantity, and members with larger growing operations enjoy the opportunity to save a little bit of money while also benefitting from the marketing value of the bags. “We have some that order 20,000 bags, and some that only order 1,000. It works for everybody,” she states.

A membership application can be found at the Minnesota Fruit and Vegetable Growers website, Information about upcoming educational sessions, workshops and other resources can also be found online. “It’s all about growers coming together to learn, and benefit from each other,” says Johnson.

Patrick White is a freelance writer based in Middlesex, Vt. Over the past 10 years, he has covered a wide range of agricultural operations around the Northeast.